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June 25, 2021

Africa

CAMEROON: What happens if Biya dies?

BY Malte Liewerscheidt

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Talk about the succession of President Paul Biya (88), at the helm since 1982 and currently serving his seventh term until 2025, is strictly forbidden in Cameroon. While Biya has not groomed an obvious heir apparent, the path to power for any successor would most likely be through the dominance of the ruling Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement (CPDM). If the CPDM manages to establish a clear pecking order ahead of Biya’s eventual demise, the transition could play out quite smoothly. However, if it does not, the succession could become a difficult, contested affair, with no domestic precedent to draw on.

According to the constitution, should Biya die in office – which is the base case – the president of the senate would take over ad interim. Elections, from which the senate president himself would be excluded, would need to be organized within 120 days. It is likely that this procedure would be followed, although this interregnum would, of course, offer a prime opportunity to stage a coup d’etat. However, Cameroon’s military is much less of a power factor than in Chad or Mali and has so far played a subordinate role in Biya’s divide-and-rule scheme.

While the army’s allegiance to Biya’s successor would, of course, be important, control of the CPDM is arguably more decisive. Much like most ruling parties in central Africa, the CPDM may be an empty shell. Still, its machinery is indispensable to secure victory in presidential elections that would need to be organized at some point to maintain a democratic façade, both for domestic and external consumption.

Since stewardship of the CPDM offers the clearest path to power, the next party congress should be watched carefully. The party has not held one in years, but, in March, it issued a statement that they would be preparing one, although the date is still to be determined.

Biya himself is very secretive, so a good dose of’Kremlinology’ must be applied when making assumptions about who might be his favored successor. While there is currently a lot of social media buzz that his son Franck may succeed him, this seems unsubstantiated. Unlike other rulers in the region, Biya has never employed close family members in his government, and Franck (54) has so far been pursuing a business career outside Cameroon. More likely picks – who must have deep pockets to win over the party delegates – include Biya’s right hand and private secretary Samuel Mvondo Ayolo, his chief of staff Ferdinand Ngoh Ngoh, and finance minister Louis-Paul Motaze.

Overall, if the CPDM manages to establish a clear pecking order ahead of Biya’s eventual demise, the transition could play out smoothly. However, if it fails to do so, this could become a difficult, contested affair, with no domestic precedent to draw on. But even so, it is likely that the matter would be handled inside the ruling party as there are strong incentives to keep the organization intact, while the opposition remains paralyzed.

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